Second Reading Speech: Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Quality and Integrity) Bill 2024

SECOND READING SPEECH
EDUCATION SERVICES FOR OVERSEAS STUDENTS AMENDMENT (QUALITY AND INTEGRITY) BILL 2024
PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA

Australians understand the importance of education.

The power of it.

We value it. What it can do to open the doors of opportunity for Australians. To change lives.

We invest in it. You see evidence of that in this year’s budget.

And we export it to the world.

And it’s a big export. The biggest we don’t dig out of the ground. Our fourth largest export overall.

In the last decade we have helped to educate more than 3 million people from around the world.

A $48 billion dollar industry.

But it doesn’t just make us money.

It also makes us friends.

Because when a student comes here to study they don’t just get an education.

A bit of Australia rubs off on them.

They fall in love with the place. And when they go home, they take that love and affection for us back home with them.

And they use the knowledge and the qualifications they’ve gained in Australia to become leaders and scientists, teachers and entrepreneurs in our neighbouring countries.

That makes this no ordinary export industry.

It’s important to our economy. And it’s important to Australia.

That’s why this bill is important. It ensures its integrity and quality. And it provides long term certainty for the sector and sustainable growth over time.

The pandemic kneecapped international education. The former government told students to go home and they did.

Almost overnight, an industry worth $40 billion was effectively halved to $22 billion.

The students are now back, but so are the shonks.

The shonks and crooks looking to take advantage of students and make a quick buck at the expense of this critical national asset.

Unscrupulous actors who are a threat to our good name as a place where the best and the brightest from around the world can come and get the best education in the world.

Since we were elected we have been working on this.

In September 2022 we announced the Parkinson Review of the Migration System.

In January 2023 the Nixon Rapid Review into the Exploitation of Australia’s Visa System.

These reviews brought urgent attention to integrity issues in international education.

We moved quickly on the recommendations of those reviews.

In July last year, we got rid of unlimited work rights for international students by re-introducing a working hours cap at 24 hours per week.

This allowed students to support themselves but not at the expense of their studies. And it was the first step in reducing the lure of getting a student visa as a backdoor to work here.

In August last year I closed the “concurrent enrolment” loophole that allowed agents and providers to shift international students who had been here for less than six months from one course to another, a cheaper one. From genuine study to no study at all. Another backdoor way just to work here.

In October last year we boosted the capacity of the VET regulator, ASQA, through a $38 million investment and establishing an integrity unit.

The same month we increased the amount of savings that international students now require to get a student visa – to $24,505. It’s now $29,710.

In March of this year we increased the English language requirement for students, introduced a new Genuine Student requirement and increased the number of “no further stay” conditions on certain cohorts of visa students.

Many of these measures are in response not only to the Parkinson and Nixon reviews, but to feedback from the sector.

They know that dodgy education agents and providers create problems for the whole industry. And they are a threat to the reputations of the universities and providers who are doing the right thing.

It’s very important that this important part of our economy maintains its social licence to operate.

Not only are the students back, Mr Speaker, but they’re back faster than anyone unexpected.

Here and in other countries.

At the Universities Australia Gala Dinner in February last year I spoke about how the trajectory of the total number of international students enrolled in our universities wouldn’t get back to pre-pandemic levels until the end of 2025.

Well, they are back already.

That’s a vote of confidence in our institutions and providers.

And in Australia as a place where the best and brightest come to study.

But it is also something we need to manage carefully and protect from bad actors.

And that’s what this bill does.

It amends the Education Services for Overseas Students Act to include measures which directly respond to issues identified in the Nixon and Migration Reviews.

The amendments are also informed by the 2023 interim report of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, entitled “Quality and Integrity – the quest for sustainable growth: Interim report into international education”, and I take this opportunity to thank my colleagues, in particular the Member for Bruce who is with us in the Chamber, and  Senator O’Neill and the other members of that Committee, for their outstanding work on that interim report.

One of the issues this bill addresses is the activities of education agents and their interaction with providers in Australia.

There’s an important role for education agents in helping students navigate their move from one country to another to study.

But what the reviews and sector feedback have told us is that we have a problem with collusive and unscrupulous practices between some agents and providers.

In response, the bill inserts a new definition of “education agent” which better captures their activities. It strengthens the fit and proper requirement used by regulators to apply increased scrutiny to cross-ownership of businesses, including those between an education agent and an education provider.

The bill also inserts a definition of “education agent commission”. This will allow for complementary amendments to be made to the National Code of Practice for Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students 2018 to ban commissions from being paid to education agents for onshore student transfers.

It’s something that the sector has asked for and will help address agents poaching newly arrived students to shift from their original course into a cheaper one, a more limited course, at a different provider.

To further support this and to increase transparency around the operation of education agents, the bill requires providers to give information to the Secretary on request about education agent commissions they have given, and strengthens the ability of the Secretary of the Department of Education or the relevant regulator to give information to registered providers about education agents.

Access to performance data about all education agents, not just agents they have an existing relationship with, will enable providers to make better informed decisions about who they choose to engage with.

The bill also introduces measures to improve the management of applications for registration as a provider or the addition of courses to an existing provider’s registration.

Importantly, it allows the Minister for Education to direct via legislative instrument that relevant regulators, called ESOS agencies in the Act, are not required to, or must not, accept or process these applications for a period of up to 12 months.

The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade heard evidence of instances where some providers were offering courses to international students only, which can be an indicator of poor quality.

The bill addresses this by changing the registration requirements for education providers to require that new providers deliver a course to domestic students for two years before they can apply to register to deliver courses to international students.

This builds on the requirements recently introduced in the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Act 2011 and means that new providers will need a track record with their domestic students before extending delivery to international students.

And it means that ESOS agencies have time to focus on any integrity issues with a new provider before they enter the international market.

It will also deter dodgy providers from setting up “ghost colleges” – fronts that exist mainly to get students a visa so they can work without ever attending a class.

English-language courses – ELICOS – and Foundation programs will be exempt from these measure as they only deliver to international students, as will be Table A providers under the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to ensure that they remain able to restructure their existing business operations without attracting the limitation.

The bill also helps build quality in the sector by enabling the automatic cancellation of a provider’s registration where it has not delivered a course to an overseas student over 12 consecutive months.

This complements recent changes to the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Act 2011 and targets integrity risks posed by dormant providers.

These providers are not demonstrating a commitment to international students, and can be a vehicle for unscrupulous actors to bypass registration requirements for entering the sector through the purchase of dormant providers.

There are protections to ensure that schools are exempt due to the smaller number of overseas students they teach, and applications for extensions may be made to ensure that genuine providers are not affected or inconvenienced.

Finally on providers, the bill strengthens the fit and proper test applied by ESOS agencies to providers to take into account whether a provider is under investigation for a specific offence, such as human trafficking, slavery or slavery-like practices.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I said earlier that we have to ensure that we manage the international education industry in a way that delivers the greatest benefit to Australia, whilst maintaining its social licence from the Australian people.

In keeping with the responsible approach from this Government, the bill introduces powers for the Minister for Education to manage sector enrolments to deliver sustainable growth.

These are to make enrolment limits by legislative instrument, or by individual notice, for providers. These may relate to a provider level ‘total enrolment limit’, or at the course level imposing a ‘course enrolment limit’, or a combination of the two.

In setting enrolment limits, the Minister for Education will take into account the relevance of courses to Australia’s skills needs.

An additional consideration for the Minister for Education when setting limits will be the supply of purpose built student accommodation available to both domestic and international students.

Where a limit impacts the VET sector, the Minister for Education must obtain agreement from the Minister for Skills and Training prior to introducing a limit.

There are transitional provisions to ensure that any limits only apply to new enrolments for the 2025 calendar year, and the Minister for Education is able to exempt specific courses from any total enrolment limit imposed on a provider.

Finally, the bill enables the automatic suspension and cancellation of courses specified by the Minister for Education, with agreement from the Minister for Skills and Training where it affects the VET sector, by legislative instrument.

This allows the Minister for Education to limit the delivery of courses with systemic quality issues, limited value to Australia’s critical skills need, or where it is in the public interest to do so – for instance, where students are being exploited.

At the Australian International Education Conference in October last year I said that the Government wanted to work with the international education industry to make sure we get these reforms right.

And I am serious about doing this in consultation with the sector.

This week the Government released a draft international education and skills framework for consultation.

We will consult with the sector on the implementation of the powers set out in the bill.

This will be through broad and continued engagement with the Council for International Education, and with the sector.

Stakeholders like Universities Australia, the Group of Eight, the International Education Association Australia, TAFE Directors Australia, the Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia and the Regional Universities Network.

This work will take place over the next few months, with the intention that any limits will have a start date of 1 January 2025.

One thing that the framework makes clear is that international education is not a one-way street.

In the last couple of years we have made great strides in taking Australian education overseas – teaching in international branch campuses where students can get the benefit of an Australian education without having to  leave home.

We are already a global leader here. There are more than 10 Australian universities operating International Branch Campuses across 10 countries, with 3 further branch campuses expected to open later this year.

Universities like Monash, who have the first foreign university campus in Indonesia.

Or Wollongong, with their campus in GIFT City, India and Western Sydney University soon to open in Surabaya.

That’s a key part of this too. And I look forward to working with the sector as consultation on the framework progresses.

Mr Deputy Speaker, the important measures in this bill are the next steps in strengthening our international education sector, shutting out the shonks, giving our providers long term certainty and setting this national asset up for future success.

I commend the bill to the House.

ENDS